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Missy Franklin gives sombre Colorado a reason to cheer

Missy Franklin of the U.S. holds her national flag during the women's 100m backstroke victory ceremony at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 30, 2012. Franklin won the gold.


At 3:15 in the morning on July 20, the parents of teenage American-Canadian swimming sensation Missy Franklin were startled by a phone call. It was Missy, calling from France, where she was training for the Olympics.

Missy had just heard about the mass shooting in the Century cinema in Aurora, Colo., which killed 12 and injured 58. She goes to school in Aurora, trains in the same town and some of her friends live there.

"Missy knew before I did," Dorothy (DA) Franklin, 62, Missy's mother, said at the Olympic site Tuesday, just two hours before her daughter's 200-metre freestyle final (she missed the bronze medal by 1/100th of a second). "She said, 'I'm so scared, I'm scared to be here, scared for my friends, I'm scared for Colorado.' "

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DA called Missy's coach and thought about jumping on a plane so she could take her daughter in her arms. None of Missy's friends was killed or wounded and both mother and daughter, while deeply saddened, calmed down. "She said, 'I can't do anything but train hard and maybe it will help Colorado feel a bit better if I do well,' " DA said. "She just kept stressing that."

It worked. Missy won Olympic bronze in the 4X100 metre freestyle rally and gold in the 200-metre backstroke. Hard-luck Colorado – the site of the Columbine high-school massacre in 1999, devastating forest fires this year and, now, the Aurora shootings – exploded in joy.

DA and her husband, Dick Franklin, are overwhelmed by the response from Coloradans. "All the e-mails I am getting from senators, the chamber, business leaders say, 'Dick, from the bottom or our heart, thank Missy. She has just created a spark for Colorado, we finally have something positive,' " Dick said. "And Missy decided to dedicate all her events to Colorado, to the victims of the massacre."

DA and Dick Frankin are the international parents of the moment. After Missy won gold Monday night in London, they became instantly famous. So many requests for interviews arrived so quickly that Missy's PR handlers urged them to hold their own press conference, which they did. No one can remember the last time a winning athlete's parents so captured the media's imagination.

While Missy has been a ray of sunshine for a beleaguered state, the Aurora episode also displayed the carefully nurtured balancing act between Missy and her parents. Missy, at 17, is still a kid, but getting old and sophisticated enough to make her own decisions. And Dad and Mom, especially Mom, are learning that they can't push that daughter too much even if crucial career decisions loom.

Dick, who was born in St. Catharines, Ont., doesn't want Missy's swimming career to overwhelm his own career. Tall, amiable and fit – he played football for St. Mary's University in Halifax– Dick is a technology consultant in the sustainable energy field, loves his job and, at 66, has no plans to retire. DA, who is from Nova Scotia, left a medical career a bit more than a year ago to manage Missy's increasingly global swimming schedule and rising stardom (and help find shoes big enough to fit her size 13 feet). They left Canada for the United States in the early 1980s.

One big topic under discussion is Missy's professional status, or lack thereof; she is an amateur, which means she is turning down small fortunes in prize money – about $150,000 (U.S.) so far – and greater fortunes in potential sponsorship money. As an amateur, the parents are getting stuck with a lot of the training and travel tab.

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Given her talent and sudden international fame, Missy's amateur status makes her highly unusual in sponsorship-mad America. But, so far, she has embraced non-professional status. She has said she wants to swim in college, where NCAA rules would demand that she not take cash for wins.

So what do the parents think about the forgone loot? Missy's world cup wins last year would have earned her $70,000 in cash. DA, who was working part time as a physician at the time, told her daughter: "You know, the money you just won swimming in two weekends, that's what I make all year. She got it; that's a lot of money."

Still, Dick and DA know that going pro has its downsides and just want Missy to explore all her options, being careful to be neutral even though the money is tempting.

"A lot of the pros say it becomes a job and that's all they think about because you have a contract with these sponsors and they expect you to perform to get your bonus," DA said. "Is that fair to a 17-year-old? She's not even out of high school."

While Missy's parents and Missy herself appear to have reached a comfortable neutral ground on the career-management front, DA has made it perfectly clear that their daughter is not free to make her own decisions in at least one area: "She is going to college. Mom has spoken."

As for Colorado, all it cares about is that their home-grown star keeps winning. She is competing in more Olympic events and the girl who lifted Colorado from its deep funk seems bound to increase her medal haul.

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